Excitement Minimal, But Goal Accomplished

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on the Auburn football Tigers as they begin preparation for a road test against Top 10 opponent Tennessee.

It was boring, but Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville did it right.

Last Saturday's game against The Citadel would have been a lot more fun for the fans if Auburn's starters had played through the third quarter, if Al Borges had unleashed his shifting, moving offense on the I-AA Bulldogs. Had the Tigers done that, they would have probably scored in the 60s.

As it was, they were pure vanilla on both sides of the ball and won 33-3 in a game that had sent most of the fans either home or to their tailgating spots long before it was over.

Tuberville knew what he wanted out of Saturday's game. He wanted to play a lot of players. Seventy-three got into the game. He got the top backups plenty of work. The subs took over late in the second quarter and played the rest of the game.

Let's face it. That's all that there really is to accomplish out of such a game. The Citadel couldn't win. Everybody on both sides knew that.

Really, three plays kept the game from being the kind of blowout that most expected. Carnell Williams fumbled to end two drives that seemed headed for scores. Rich Trucks got a personal foul penalty in the final seconds of the first half after Brandon Cox had completed a pass to Silas Daniels at the 1-yard line.

Irritating? Sure. Meaningful? Nope. Williams has proved for four seasons that he's not fumble-prone. Two fumbles against The Citadel don't mean he's suddenly going to have trouble holding on to the ball. One would hope that Trucks learned a lesson. Such a penalty could be much more costly in a closer game.

The Tigers gave up more yards on the ground than they would have liked, but end Bret Eddins and tackle Jay Ratliff played only a handful of plays even in the first half. On offense, neither Ronnie Brown nor Tre Smith played a snap.

It just didn't matter. Auburn won by enough to protect its ranking, got a lot of young players experience and rested the starters for most of the game. That was far more valuable than scoring bunches of touchdowns would have been.

There were some positive signs. The backups kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone after 79-yard return against the backup kickoff coverage team. Jason Campbell couldn't have been much sharper, completing 11 of 14 for 175 yards before taking a seat late in the second quarter.

Ronnie Brown is expected to be back in action for the Tigers on Saturday night in Knoxville.

There were too many Bulldog defenders in the backfield, but they were sending more defenders than the Tigers could block. Had Tuberville and Borges chosen to do it, Auburn could have probably broken every school passing record. Probably the biggest negative was John Vaughn's miss of a 32-yard field goal try. I don't know how confident anyone at Auburn would be if a game came down to a field goal.

And now things get serious. The winner of next Saturday's showdown at Tennessee will emerge as a serious national championship contender. The game will have more impact on the national picture than the SEC race. Because it's not a division game, the loser will still have its destiny in its own hands in the race to get to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

In some ways, it's more important to the Vols because they are playing at home, but neither team has to win this game to have an outstanding season.

I don't know if Tennessee is better or even as good as LSU. From what I've seen, the Vols, 42-17 winners over Louisiana Tech last Saturday, are better on offense and not as good on defense. They will probably be harder to beat than was LSU because they are playing at home. They don't lose often at Neyland Stadium.

Auburn is clearly a good team. Can it be great? Saturday's game will go a long way toward answering that question.

AROUND THE SEC

Going into the season, most people saw Auburn and LSU clearly as the top two teams in the West. If another team was going to crash the party, most thought it would be Ole Miss.

It won't be Ole Miss.

The Rebels are learning that life after Eli is not so good. They rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Vanderbilt last week, but they couldn't pull it off at Wyoming on Saturday night. Ole Miss is 1-3 with a lot more losses to come.

But there is another contender in the West. Arkansas jumped into the picture with its 27-10 victory over Alabama. I still don't believe its defense is good enough to carry the Razorbacks to Atlanta. I could change that tune if they find a way to beat Florida in the Swamp next Saturday .

It's a good thing Mississippi State gave Sylvester Croom a win in his first game. He might not get another one before next season.

The Bulldogs have given up 94 points in two SEC games, falling 43-14 at home to Auburn and 51-0 at LSU. They lost to Divison I-AA Maine. Their remaining games are at Vanderbilt, at home against UAB, Florida and Kentucky, at Alabama, at home against Arkansas and at Ole Miss.

It's hard to find a win on that list...

Until next time...


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